The Religion of Running Technique

[While iRunFar rarely touches on the technical aspects of running fitness, we received an offer we couldn’t refuse from our good friend and exercise physiologist Dr. William Henderson of Endurance Science. In the following article, he explores various foot strike patterns, running methods, and their effects.]

It doesn’t take long watching a race, or running with friends, to realize that there are a wide variety of running styles. Some runners seem to float along with virtually no ground contact, while others (such as yours truly) lumber forward, each step a precarious balance between falling and stalling. It’s also clear, if you read running magazines, look at internet running forums, or attend any gathering of runners that there are strongly held convictions about how “best” to run. The latest fashion has been to promote “forefoot running” as superior to “heel striking.” It is amazing to me that there are such emotional, powerfully held convictions about this issue amongst runners of all levels. I’ve been at many running events, camps and conferences where heated arguments ensue over this issue, with both sides providing little evidence other than personal experience and anecdote.

So what is the evidence? Is there a best technique for all runners? Can we try to examine this issue without resorting to arguments that begin with “I was always injured until…”, “As humans evolved…” or “Look at how Kenyans/children/ancient Babylonians run…”.

In this article, I sift through some of the opinions and evidence and, hopefully, come up with some ideas about rational technique improvements and, finally, some drills that may help with injury and efficiency concerns.

You can be faster and better looking for only $95.99

The first issue we should probably look at is – why do we even care about running technique? Why is there so much angst over this issue, as opposed to, say, hand held vs backpack hydration systems? Why do we spend our time thinking about this, as opposed to trying to revive Bjorn Borg style head bands?

The fact is, many (or most!) of us harbor the secret belief that there is a technique, or style, or running that will instantly make us less injury prone, more efficient, and, therefore, FASTER. And faster is what we all want to be.

Unfortunately, anytime there are people desperately looking for a solution, someone will try to give them an answer. When there’s money involved, very quickly the hucksters appear and start marketing solutions that are “unique,” based on secret information, and , of course, can only be learned through a DVD, course, or book (which, by the way, aren’t free). Sadly, I think that there are several groups that have tried to cash  in on our need for a solution. I’ll leave this issue for later debate, but suffice it to say, there is no secret information!

So if we hope that technique changes will help decrease injury, improve efficiency and make us faster, it seems reasonable to try to examine the evidence for different techniques in light of these 3 aspects.

In the next several sections, I’ll look at the evidence comparing what I will broadly term “forefoot running” versus flatfoot or heel strike running. Currently, Pose running and Chi running are popular exponents of forefoot running, so I think it is fair to examine some of the data around these methods, too.

Injuries and Forefoot Running

Let’s first look at running technique and injury risks. I don’t know a runner that hasn’t been injured by running, and for some of us, injuries prevent us ever reaching our potential.

What is interesting is that the rate of injuries has gone up over time, despite greater attention to injury prevention, “improvements” in shoe design and so on. I think that this is probably due to the change in the type of person who enjoys distance running over the last several decades. In the 70’s and before, the typical distance runner was “born to run” – i.e., they were naturally light and lean, and often had a background in shorter distance running prior to beginning distance training. The democratization of running over the last 30 years has allowed a far greater number and variety of people to run long. These new, perhaps more recreational runners are often heavier, and often do not have years of shorter distance running behind them. Both of these factors may have led to an increase in injuries.

What ever the reason, injury is common in distance running. I’m frequently slightly injured, and my first response has usually been the wrong one – to try to “gut it out” and train through it. I think that if those of us prone to injury could find a way to prevent injury in the first place, we would take it.

Many advocates of forefoot running feel that the major source of runners’ injuries is heel striking, and that moving to a midfoot or forefoot strike will decrease any runner’s risk of injury. I certainly have friends that have seen improvements in their injury rate with a change to forefoot strike a la Pose or Chi running.

Unfortunately, I’ve also talked with many who have seen no improvement, or increased injuries with these changes. So what’s the evidence?

Proponents of forefoot landing point out that landing on the heel generates massive forces that are transferred through the knee. Quite reasonably, they suggest that these forces are what lead to knee, hip and back injuries in runners. Forefoot landing, they believe, will decrease these injuries by putting the forces through the Achilles tendon as well as the calf. All in all, a not unreasonable theory.

A study to look at this issue was performed by the sport physiology group at the University of Cape Town, in South Africa. As many of you will be aware, this is where the great Tim Noakes works. In fact, it was some of his research trainees that undertook the study.

Pose knee eccentric workIn this study (references below), a group of proficient runners were taught the Pose method of running. Their education was extensive (over several weeks, by Dr. Romanov himself) – so presumably they actually “got it” better than you could by reading a book or going to a 2-day conference. All of the runners had an extensive evaluation of their running kinetics and kinematics before and after their Pose education. This included measurements of stride rate, length, joint angles and force through joints and contact surfaces.

The changes noted with training were that cadence was higher and stride length was shorter – as Pose would predict. Importantly, power absorption and eccentric work at the knee were lower after Pose training than in either heel strike or midfoot running, but there was a higher power absorption and eccentric work at the ankle in Pose compared with heel strike or midfoot running.

Pose ankle eccentric workNow, this is certainly interesting, as higher eccentric work through the knee during running is associated with higher rates of knee injuries in runners. It’s, therefore, not unreasonable to theorize that forefoot running might decrease knee injuries. Note I say “theorize”, because this has not been demonstrated. The Pose website (beautifully constructed, and so, so tempting) takes this one step too far and actually claims injury reduction.

Unfortunately, nothing is free in life! The price of decreased forces at the knee is increased eccentric work and power absorption through the ankle. This, I theorize, might lead to higher rates of Achilles tendon and calf injuries. So you’re trading the risks of knee injuries for ankle, Achilles and calf injuries.

I recently read a post by one of the study participants (also one of the authors of the excellent Science of Sport blog), who described what happened to the runners after the 2 week training and testing period. He states that: “… what happened next was never going to be published in a scientific journal by the advocates for the technique, and would certainly not be reported on the website alongside the claim of reduced work on the knee! For what happened is that of the twenty runners who were trained, more than half broke down with calf muscle injury, Achilles tendon strains and other injuries of the feet!”

Hardly a ringing endorsement for forefoot running as an injury cure-all.

So does forefoot running automatically prevent running injuries? To my mind, the biomechanical evidence and research does not support this idea yet. However, I do think that it shifts the pattern of stresses in the foot, leg and hip. There may be a silver lining in this. For some runners, prone to injuries of the knee and hip, forefoot running may allow some relief (although there is a good chance you’ll develop a new set of injuries!). So if you’re chronically injured in the knees or hip, it might be worth a try. If you have ankle, calf or Achilles tendonitis, I wouldn’t try it. If you aren’t regularly injured, I can’t see a benefit either.

  • Ferber, R., Hreljac, A., Kendall, K. D (2009). Suspected Mechanisms in the Cause of Overuse Running Injuries: A Clinical Review. Sports Health: A Multidisciplinary Approach 1: 242-246
  • Arendse, RE, TD Noakes, LB Azevedo, N. Romanov, M. P. Schellnus, and G. Fletcher. Reduced Eccentric Loading of the Knee with the Pose Running Method. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc., Vol. 36, No. 2, pp. 272-277, 2004.

Economy and Forefoot Running

In the last section, I addressed some of the purported injury prevention advantages of forefoot running and then looked at the available evidence. In this one, I’m going to try to review the data around running economy and technique. Once again, I’m going to focus on the ideas popularized by Chi, Pose and Evolution Running as they have “put themselves out there” by offering solutions for money. In a forthcoming article, I’ll offer some suggestions (for free) about how to improve economy.

The first question, of course, is “what is running economy.” Essentially, when a physiologist approaches this issue, s/he wants to know the oxygen cost of movement. The less oxygen it costs to move a certain distance (or at a certain speed) the more economical a runner is. The corollary is that if you are more economical, you can run faster for a given heart rate or cardiac output (if you want a detailed explanation of these concepts check out this page).

Running economy is often proposed to be a primary determinant of competitive endurance running success and is defined as the oxygen cost per kilogram body mass per kilometer run. However, changes in running economy link to running technique with 54% of the variation in running economy attributed to biomechanical variables.

Now, economy isn’t just about technique – it also encompasses the efficiency of intracellular processes (i.e., how well your cells process oxygen) and neuromuscular adaptations (“springiness” of tendons, coordination of movements). It’s a global measure, and training in a new technique could only be expected to alter the “style” portion, not the intracellular and neuromuscular portions.

All that aside, some proponents of forefoot running suggest that it is a technique inherently designed to improve running economy, via increased use of the stretch-shortening cycle in the Achilles tendon, and better foot placement on landing (i.e., landing under the hips and not in front of them, which may cause braking). Once again, these are not necessarily ludicrous theories – but like so many theories, do they stand up to examination of the evidence?

Pose running costThe only study to look directly at the Pose method was performed in 2004 and looked at running economy in triathletes. Sixteen athletes had their running economy assessed at the beginning of the study period. Half of them continued with their normal running volume and technique. The other half were personally instructed by Dr. Romanov over 12 weeks in the Pose method. They maintained their running volume during this time. At the end of the study, all triathletes had their indices of running economy remeasured. The Pose athletes showed an increase in oxygen cost for running at a submaximal speed as compared to before training. This means that they got worse with respect to running economy – and thus slower.

Now, of course, it can be argued that their economy was worse as they had just learned the technique. This is possible, but still, they had 12 weeks with Dr. Romanov himself – a lot more than you will get in a 2 day course or a DVD.

It is certainly possible that there is a combination of circumstances (i.e., the right runner, the right surface and the right training) that might produce a situation where forefoot running is the most efficient running form. This might be true for the often cited Rift Valley runners who are lightweight, run from youth on somewhat forgiving surfaces and build up the musculotendinous strength to tolerate forefoot running stresses. It’s also possible that some more typical recreational runners might benefit from this style, either as a training supplement or as a primary running form. All that we can really say from published scientific data is that improvements in economy weren’t obvious in a group of well trained runners that received significant coaching in the Pose style.

So will forefoot running make you more economical? The limited evidence doesn’t seem to support it for most people.

  • GM Dallam, RL Wilber, K Jedalis et al. Effect of a global alteration of running technique on kinematics and economy. Journal of Sports Sciences. 2005. 23: 757-764.

Do the Fast Runners Run Forefoot?

In previous sections we’ve looked at the contention that forefoot running might reduce injuries or be more economical. It doesn’t appear to do either of these things in a consistent manner (at least when examined from the point of view of the scientific literature). Of course, the reason that we care about injury and economy is that they both relate to training and competition speed. As always, what we want is to get faster – fewer injuries with better economy is the way to get there.

When I tell groups of runners that it is not clear that forefoot running helps with economy or injury, it is inevitable that someone will ask me about the running style of the current crop of world class runners from East Africa. As most of you are aware, there is a widespread belief that (possibly due to running barefoot as children), runners from this part of the world run with a method that looks like Pose/Chi/forefoot running. The logical contention is then that running this way will make us run like Kenyan superathletes (wouldn’t that be nice!).

Leaving aside the fact that the speed of the world’s best runners may have nothing at all to do with their foot strike (how about more important things like weight, training, limb length, etc?), is it in fact true that the fastest runners have a consistent foot strike style that can be emulated?

Forefoot strikeIn 2007, Hiroshi Hasegawa and colleagues analyzed the foot strike patterns of elite runners in a half marathon. Using slow-motion video analysis these researchers captured the foot strike pattern of the runners at the 15 km point. On average 75% ran with a heel strike pattern, 24% with a midfoot strike and less than 2% with a forefoot strike. All that we can really conclude from this is that some fast runners use a heel strike pattern and some a midfoot pattern. There were exceedingly few that used a forefoot strike. (See image from the paper at left – “Figure 2.”)

A similar paper looked at Naoko Takahashi (gold medal in the 2000 Olympic Marathon) as she ran on the treadmill. This group of researchers concluded that Takahashi ran with a midfoot strike. While this was on a treadmill and not on road, there is little reason to believe that she would change her gait simply because she was tested on a treadmill.

So what about Kenyans and Ethiopians? Well, here is a video of Haile Gebrselassie – a runner you may have heard of! What I find interesting is that he appears to be running with a heel strike pattern with one foot and a midfoot strike pattern with the other.

Now what is interesting is the following video of  the Little Emperor and Tergat racing in a 10K. Gebrselassie’s foot contact looks a bit different…. Is this due to different age, different training or different pace (I think most likely the latter).

Most people change their foot strike pattern as they move through a range of speeds – unconsciously. The body is remarkably adaptable in minimizing energy use, and I think that at different speeds, it “knows” to change landing mechanics. Try running a 100m as fast as you can, and then a half marathon – your contact point will be different, virtually guaranteed.

So what to conclude from all of this data? It seems clear that the majority of the world’s fastest runners in long distance races do not run with a forefoot or even midfoot strike. However, it is also clear that there are some that do. It is my opinion that foot strike patterns are naturally determined by our own unique combination of anthopomorphics, biomechanics and physiology – our body finds the pattern that is most efficient for each of us. For some, this may be forefoot or midfoot, but for most it is not. Additionally, this strike pattern changes as we change our speed. I am extremely skeptical that there is a “best” foot strike (or even running style) that can be blindly prescribed to every runner. Instead, I think that our body’s governing centers adopt a pattern best suited to our individual needs based on energy output, speed and body type. This is not to say that some of us don’t run with injurious or pathological gaits that could benefit from coaching and adaptation. However, this needs to be done slowly, with careful analysis of the individual runner’s style and gait, not in a wholesale manner designed to sell books and videos.

  • H Hasegawa, T Yamauchi, WJ Kraemer. Foot strike patterns of runners at the 15-km point during an elite-level half marathon. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 2007, 21(3), 888–893.
  • Yamauchi, T., AND H. Hasegawa. The motion analysis of a gold medal marathon runner Naoko Takahashi during the race at Sydney Olympic. Monthly Journal of Track and Field. 8:146–151. 2002.

Call for Comments
So what do you think about all of this talk about footstrike and running methods? Are you a strong believer in a certain approach? If you couldn’t care less, tell us why.

There are 90 comments

  1. Mark Lundblad

    Very informative article. I couldn’t agree more about there not being a “best” foot strike or running style. It can not be stressed enough, everybody is different, trying to emulate someone else’s style especially because they are fast is just not smart. Some could benefit from tweaks in their running style and foot strike but a lot of us need to go with what we got.

    Forefoot running is what is most efficient for some (arguably very few), midfoot for others and heel strike for a lot of us. I tend to run midfoot for the first couple hours then as I tire I know I’m going back on my heels. I’m becoming less efficient because I’m getting tired and slowing down. I try to pay attention and focus on my form later in my long runs or races but inevitably my mind gets just as tired. Proof is in my pictures from races early on versus near the finish. Thanks for pointing all this out and that there are some “rational” technique improvements.

  2. chris

    Excellent post! I found the study of triathlete running economy particularly interesting, as I too found the mid-forefoot running technique required a greater effort than my normal light heel striking ways. Would love to see more articles on technical issues such as this in the future.

  3. Ryan

    "Currently, Pose running and Chi running are popular exponents of forefoot running"

    Chi Running has never advocated a forefoot landing. Every Chi Running resource talks about a midfoot or full foot landing. This article would be better if the author had actually researched the techniques he is writing about.

  4. Matt

    " I am extremely skeptical that there is a “best” foot strike (or even running style) that can be blindly prescribed to every runner. Instead, I think that our body’s governing centers adopt a pattern best suited to our individual needs based on energy output, speed and body type."

    I like this line from article not so much because of what it says, but because of what it implies. Since we (appropriately) respond to any given stress on the body you need to think about what stresses you put on your body during training versus what stresses you are preparing for. It suggests that you better train in similar manners to as you race as this is when you will develop the running style that helps when it really counts. For instance if you are racing flat marathons you better get in some running at marathon pace on the flats, while if you are prepping for a mountain 100, shift from flat shorter speed to longer, hillier runs. Of course it is intuitive, but I think that all us can use some reminding that race-specific training is always your best bet whether it is from an economy, metabolic, or cardiovascular adaptation perspective.

  5. Tyro

    Sounds very reasonable. I've been transitioning to a forefoot strike since my knees have been a source of pain for me for decades and now I've been able to run with fewer worries. You're absolutely right about swapping knee injuries for calf but after having both, I'd much rather have problems with a muscle than a joint but everyone has different problems.

    I'm curious about the efficiency angle. I noticed that I used to have a lot of "bounce" when I'd heel strike. I especially noticed on longer distances when I'd wear a camelback and the bouncing would cause the pack straps to rub at my neck and back leaving me with large, painful sores. With a forefoot strike, I hardly have any bounce anymore. Of course this is anecdotal but it does make me wonder about what the impact force and especially the impact force profile looks like for different runners. If one group bounces more wouldn't they generally have to absorb (and generate) more force? If one group can reduce the bounce, mightn't they be spreading the force out over a greater period of time, reducing the effective impact?

    And finally, while stats are great for deciding whether to pursue one style or another, is there a good way to evaluate our own running style and look for improvements? That is, can we take this back from populations and look for ways to apply it at an individual level?

    Thanks!

  6. runningmtn.goat

    What an awesome article. Thanks for posting it Bryon. I am a big believer in running economy, but I believe it is a little different for each person. I am always fascinated by how each person runs and a strong believer in "good" running form. But a definite definition of "good" running form is hard to nail down. I tell runners to listen to their foot strike, as I believe scrubbing noise, slapping noise, any noisey foot strike is inefficient. Some part of the body has to absorb those excess forces. Having coached high school runners for years, I've seen heel, midfoot, and ball of foot strikers, all make too much noise. I have worked on my own efficiency for 20+ years and continue. Plus I feel upper body posture and core body strength is equally important to running economy and injury prevention. There is no one perfect running form as we are all put together a little differently. I agree that slight, gradual adjustments can help us runners move more efficiently, faster, and with less injury risk. But generally slight and gradual change. Thanks again for the great article.

    jb

  7. Matt P

    Fascinating piece. Like the previous poster, I do find my footstrike changing as I fatigue. I vary it for other reasons, too.

    I've worked through both Chi and Pose over the past few years, taking both with a grain of salt and adapting changes to form that make sense to me. It's not the change in footstrike that has made the most difference to me, but rather other aspects of form: eliminating overstriding, landing behind my center of gravity, using core muscles to stay straight and a slight lean to exploit gravity, keeping a faster cadence, relaxing lower leg muscles, using pelvis and gluts more, etc. Footstrike generally works itself out, if these other things are in place.

    What finally convinced me that I was on the right track in this experiment of one was the effect these changes had on DOMS–my quad soreness after a marathon or long run. That pain was eliminated. This had a huge effect on my marathon time and my recovery, both after races and ordinary training. After 30 plus years of running, I ran a marathon time I hadn't hit in 25 years, then started in on ultras for the first time.

    But there was a trade-off, as the article suggests. Now I have calf, ankle, and foot issues to manage. I haven't been injured. But there are clearly new stresses on these areas. As I've worked on my form, I do find my feet and ankles are much stronger. My calf muscles, however, can be temperamental.

    This can be managed through footstrike changes. What I've found is that if my calves start giving me signals in a long race, I can just ease back into a mid- or whole-foot landing, and the problems subside. Again, I'm maintaining the elements of good form I've been learning from Chi, Pose, etc., but I'm not being a purist about foot landing. I do what works for the moment.

    Good article. Thanks for posting.

    Matt P.

  8. Tyro

    Just as an additional comment – while the studies do involve spending weeks or months with a new running technique, presumably all runners in the study had been using their old technique for years or decades. I have seen one snake oil salesman promising results in days but I have to think that the best summary of the findings is that changing running technique will not make you immediately faster.

    Also it does seem worth highlighting that some of the claims of the forefoot/barefoot runners – that this will reduce knee and hip injury – are borne out by the studies. And it hints that we will be moving from stressing out our knees and hips to stressing our our calves which leads to an obvious question: aren't our muscles far better at handling these dynamic stresses than our joints?

    I've been told countless times than the stress of running is wearing down my cartilage and will lead to serious, long-term damage but when I lift weights, this same stress will lead to increased muscle fibre growth, increased strength, increased bone density and overall increased health. I'm sure I could be missing something but it doesn't sound like this switch is even close to neutral, it looks like a huge win. Maybe the writer could comment.

  9. Pete

    It's worth noting that in the Arendse study Pose runners were advised to contact on the ball of foot "and avoid contact of the heel with the supporting surface." My take would be that this method is very stressful on the calf/Achilles complex, and is not representative of how people run when barefoot or using the Chi method (the heel comes down; also, will point out that I am not a Chi runner). Most of the studies cited here are assessing the Pose method, and it is debatable whether this applies to all forms of forefoot/midfoot running.

    Regarding the Hasegawa study, you are correct that they observed a significant majority of heel strikers, but they also observed an increased proportion of midfoot strikers among the faster runners in their sample.

    Regarding increased injury rates, although being a new runner has been associated with increased injury risk, some studies have found increased BMI to not be associated, and some have even found it to be protective (unclear why this might be).

    Regarding economy, Squadrone and Gallozzi 2009 found runners in Vibram Fivefingers to be more economical than those in regular shoes, though running barefoot was not found to be different from running in regular shoes. Point being the data are unclear, and as you rightly point out we need more study. But, only referencing the Pose study makes things seem more certain than they really are.

    Next, trying to determine footstrike patterns from crude YouTube videos is next to impossible. The guys on Science of Sport, who you reference here, make this point frequently. You need high speed footage to do it right. Some elites heel strike, some don't, so there is clearly variation, and I would agree with that.

    Finally, I wouldn't discount shoes as a confounding factor when it comes to footstrike – it's pretty obvious form the recent work of Lieberman, Hamill, etc. that taking shoes out of the picture changes gait/footstrike, and this in turn influences impact parameters (e.g., loading rate). It's not all genetics and physiology.

    I don't want this to come off as an attack on your post, because I agree with a lot of what you say, but the topic is a lot more complex than it is made out here, particularly when focusing just on a few studies that use what I consider to be an outlier running style for the reasons mentioned above (Pose). I also believe that forefoot/midfoot can help with knee/hip issues, but like you have concerns about what it means for the calf/Achilles/foot. These are things that need to be looked at in depth going forward with injury studies. I also think the economy question is pretty open right now, and decent long-term studies that have allowed time to adapt to various methods are lacking. However, for the average runner this is also a secondary concern to injury risk. It's an exciting time to think about all of this stuff, and we are only just now starting to put together the pieces, so I value the discussion even if I disagree with some of your points.

  10. j4

    It's good to see those who claim that 'their' technique prevents injury shown-up as the quacks they sometimes are. Me, I'm a massive fan of the move to mininalist shoes and more natural running and I don't think that should be confused with the growth in the sale of trade-marked running styles.

    I believe you run better and more efficiently if you feel what your foot is doing and the more minimal shoes allow that. I've changed from pronation control shoes to invo8 220s with no impact issues and feel lighter and faster on my feet (and I know longer get black toenails from my feet sliding about in boat-like shoes).

    I think the key is not which part of the foot lands first, but the direction the foot is travelling when it lands (moving backwards, below the knee) and where it lands (under your body) – Like Haile and Tergat. I see lots of people tip-toeing along with their toes landing way out ahead like Penelope Pipstop – not good.

    1. Matt P

      "…key is not which part of the foot lands first, but the direction the foot is travelling when it lands (moving backwards, below the knee) and where it lands (under your body)." Completely agree. This has certainly been my experience. The other key, as you say, is to "feel what your foot is doing."

      This was a terrific article, but focused far too narrowly on the issue of foot-strike.

      Matt P

  11. Justus

    Makes sense to me. Why mess with the stride God gave you. Isn't it possible we will automagiclly find our best stride, or is that just wishful thinking?

    Either way, I have been trying to move my strike a little further up my foot to midfoot and increase my turnover. That of course has led me to a calf injury!

  12. Chase

    I loved the classical music in the background of the Haile video. I was cracking up but at the same time blown away by his efficiency. His stride is a thing of beauty. I can't believe the knee drive and the power coming off such a small torso. His sustainable speed is incredible, seriously, a freak of nature…in a classical kind of way no doubt.

  13. Speedgoat Karl

    In my simple opinion, the most efficient stride is your own. Just go run. Haile's stride is beautiful, but not one person reading this blog will ever run like Haile. :-)

    1. Sam Winebaum

      I agree with Karl "just go run".

      That doesn't mean not trying new techniques and technologies, like Hokas. I have tried them all from EB Lydiards and the earliest Nikes all the way to Hokas. Sort of a lifelong hobby which started in the mid 1970's when Nike R&D was in Exeter NH where I grew up and they customized and tried all kinds of things on local runners. Here is what I know. Back then we ran in what one might call today "minimal" shoes. Tiger and Nike Bostons etc… I weighed 20 pounds less than today and often ran 100 miles a week, never hurt. I was young. I won Mt Washington junior 3 times with a PR once second slower than… Karl. That was a long time ago.

      Since then have run in increasingly constructed road shoes until hamstring issues and some plantar's caused by increase in mileage, lots of trails,and day in day our use of Inov-8 295, 305's had me looking for other solutions. I moderated my trail work and did more road and flatter trails and started running in lower drop lighter shoes. It worked but given my goofy short stride, no knee lift, and heel striking form I felt that many days, especially longer days more cushion yet low drop was what I needed. Settled on the trail worn Hokas for my… road work. While I have talked to Karl and Nicholas Mermoud of Hoka I bought my 2 pairs (Mafates last year and now Bondi B) retail. While there is a lot of good science out there, I also watch carefully what folks like Karl run in and most importantly why. I knew that Karl liked more cushioned shoes for those long hauls I'll never do. I also knew he is incredibly careful in his gear selection. I saw the incredible results of his Pony Express run and this got me off the trails onto the roads in my Hokas. There is something there which is unique in my experience. We were not designed to run hard pavement, pavement doesn't give is unchanging in surface so our joints, bones, etc.. will have to take the shock. From what I see the Hokas seem to put something akin to the a surface like running on grass between your foot and that pavement or trail. Not for everyone for sure and it would be great if Karl could explain his view in more detail as he obviously believes in it. I have no problem with seeing an innovator such as Karl throw some out there radically different fuel on the debate.

      1. Trail Clown

        You started off by saying you ran 100 miles a week when you were young and that you were never hurt. And that you ran those miles in minimalist shoes. I'm assuming a good portion of that mileage was on roads? But then you end by saying we're not meant to run on roads and we need a big cushioned shoe to take the forces. Maybe we're meant to run on any surface when young…

        1. Anonymous

          We ran a pretty good mix of roads and trails. Most of the heavy mileage was on fairly flat snowmobile trails on snow. In summer long runs 4-8 hours in the White Mountains of NH in somewhat heavier road shoes, Very rough rocky trails I will only do in boots now. Trail clown you may be on to something. As we age and due to those over built shoes are we less mobile and flexible as well as less agile and thus more prone to overuse injuries For me yes. Never was a gazelle anyway. I did not mean to say that I only run in super cushioned shoes. I mix it up between Kinvaras, racing flats, and the Hokas. If I go more minimal everyday my feet tend to get sore, this was part of my issue with Inov-8 on trails day in and day out.

        2. Speedgoat Karl

          I guess it sounds like I am plugging my sponsor here. It does sound like that, and if I'm a "jerk" for coming off that way, I apologize. Believe me if I were a "salesman", I could go alot bigger in plugging a sponsor, but I don't because I think it's tacky. I really am just a believer in such a comfortable shoe. A small tiny shoe is perfect for a hill climb or quick race, but for ultras (that's what I do), a soft shoe rules. My two cents, worth a penny, but worth a nickel to some……

          Brandon, run in what you like, that's what I do. :-)

          1. Brandon

            Its cool Karl and I am not totally against a shoe like the Hoka even though I still prefer to run ultras in minimal shoes with no problems of beat up feet (never even had a black toenail). As long as a shoe doesn't have a huge difference between the heel and toe I'm pretty cool with it and from what I've looked at in regards to the Hoka, the drop is minimal. Minimal drop leads to better foot positioning in my opinion.

            Oh crap, I might have just promoted the Hoka. ;)

  14. Sam Winebaum

    I think the ultimate finding in all this debate will eventually be that regardless of how minimal the shoe is that what will really help reduce injuries and increase performance is lowering the conventional heel to forefoot drop and providing enough toe room in the forefoot toe area of the shoe. From there it depends on the runner's natural carriage, speed, and type of workout and race. I say mix it up. I am a fan of Hokas with their 4mm drop and 30-40mm of cushion for many runs as welll as Inov-8, adidas Rockets, Kinvaras, New Balance 890 (despite higher drop) etc… as each has a relatively low drop while serving a different purpose.

  15. Joe R.

    Basically I agree but would like to add one point or question. You conclude by saying that our bodies naturally adapt to what is the most efficient running style. Wouldn't the adaption best occur with a minimalist shoe? With a more traditional running shoe there seems to be too much between your foot and the ground to know how to properly adjust. In my mind, the traditional shoe acts more as a barrier and it's too difficult to "feel" the ground and know how to adjust. This seems logical to me but have zero evidence to back me up so possibly I'm completely wrong. I would be interested in other thoughts.

  16. MikeC

    Maybe I run too much with my dog, but this is the wisdom I get from her.

    1. Flat and wide trails are boring to her, rocky ascents and single track make her happy.

    2. After a run she slurps down a load of water, eats all her food, then goes to sleep.

    3. I can count at least 5 different running styles depending on terrain/speed.

    1. Speedgoat Karl

      Doggies are very smart, yah eat when I'm hungry, drink when I'm thirsty…..get the damn deer, but always return to the master. Love it.

  17. Brandon

    The problem I see with many of the research studies, and I think a few other people have been pointing this out as well, is that the type of shoes the subjects run in make a difference. It is logical to say that if you train someone to run forefoot, but leave them in the same shoe they are accustomed to, the stresses to flex your foot for a forefoot/midfoot strike are obviously more. Your peroneal tendons have to work much more to put your foot in that position with a shoe that has a higher heel-to-toe drop opposed to one with a lower drop. That could be one of the reasons the ankle injuries are higher in forefoot runners in those studies and could account for the extra energy expenditure as well. Just some food for thought.

    P.S. Karl, I have mad respect for you and your accomplishments in the ultra world. But please stop plugging your sponsors products in these comments. Its not the place and it kinda makes you come off like a jerk.

    1. Mark

      Brandon is right a propos Karl. Hokas will not be the best shoes for everyone, and there is not just one running posture that works well for everybody. Runner or salesman? Thanks.

    2. MikeV

      So if I was was plugging the Montrail Mountain Masochists would it be acceptable because I am not a sponsored athlete. Give Karl a break. If he believes in the product he is free to endorse it. We are all discerning adults and can make our own judgements.

  18. Art

    You're hinting at the fact that it may take much longer than 12 weeks to learn a new running technique and my personal experience fits with this. I spent over a year overhauling my running technique and I'm not convinced I'm entirely "there" yet (still need to work at running smoothly and efficiently at slower paces).

    What works best certainly varies from individual to individual, and too few of us truly learn to listen to our bodies to know when to take it easy and when we can push through a pain.

  19. Ric

    speaking of "genetics and physiology" hinted to in this article as the variable that makes all of this hard to objectively define for all, it would be interesting to hear from those who favor the minimalist shoes/vibrams/forefooting regarding their body type/weight. i wonder if, albeit anecdotal evidence, we can draw any conclusions here about that type of running and shoe being better suited to, say, heavier vs. lighter runners, or long-legged vs. stubby-legged runners.

    1. Brandon

      I think it less of a running style and more what your body naturally does, but at the same time, what your body does can be affected by your choice in shoes or no shoes. I think that is why the barefoot/minimalism craze is growing exponentially. The only thing that can really affect speed in my mind is how you train, how much you weigh, and keeping yourself from getting injured so you can continue to train harder. Midfoot/forefoot landing creates less impact forces which probably means less injury. Plus the weight of your shoes is a proven thing to increase speed, especially over long distance.

    2. Tyro

      William,

      I thought comparing groups of runners after a couple months was interesting but my experience has been that it takes a year at least to develop the muscular strength to comfortably run with a new technique. If you're doing research or checking others', I'd love to see the same comparisons done 6-12 months after the transition.

      Some other research I'd love to see is a breakdown of the injuries between the two groups rather than merely the frequency. If the heel strikers are getting knee surgery and the forefoot strikers are nursing sore muscles that would be very significant (maybe heel strikers have sore arches and forefoot strikers are breaking their bones, I don't know!).

      If you ever find papers on these subject or write them yourself, please share them with us, I know a lot of people would find them valuable.

      1. Anonymous

        Tyro, I think this is a very fair point. Is is perhaps setting up a bit of a straw man to compare a "style' learned over a lifetime versus one learned over a week. However, this is sometimes what the more aggressive marketers in this area suggest is sufficient to learn the technique.

  20. Sunaad

    I have a question. When you compare forefoot vs. heel landing, are you implicitly talking about shoes vs. barefoot/minimalist running? While I know that they are related, I wonder if one implies the other.

    Great Article!

  21. Spencer

    I really think the only way you can dictate whether or not a strike is good for you, is if you can do it barefoot on any surface, or nearly every surface. But, if you can't do it barefoot, then really, I don't think its good. Now, I run with shoes, and barefoot, so I'm not saying that I run barefoot all the time. So I think any time you add more to a shoe, you're taking away natural foot strike to a point. So if somebody has never felt how their body moves barefoot over lots of terrain its going to alter how they work. I know how to use my bare hands because I've been using them all my life. But, once I put a thick glove on it, it will hard to use my hand to the degree that I once was able to use it. I will lose sense in my hand. I don't want to say there's a magical injury free way to run, because I don't think there is. But, I think if we all ran barefoot occasionally it would help a lot. I think a large part though is efficiency.

  22. Ian

    I seem to notice alot of people running with no shirts and no socks lately, can't seem to think for themselves I guess. 5 oz shoes don't make you fast, proper training and hard work does. Put the miles in, not the bucks, you'll be better off in the long run. I notice my dog does'nt worry if he has the latest minimalist shoes, or if he is running forefoot or heal striking. He just friggin runs for the sheer joy of it, I learn alot from my dog.

  23. Tina

    Thanks for this article and thanks to everyone who has commented thus far. I'm new to distance running and as a 50 year old female who wants to go the distance with least risk of injury, I find these thoughts and opinions to be valuable.

    I've been practicing the Chi Running method with a good amount of success. — I credit the success more to simply being more mindful to how my body is moving and making adjustments (not just foot strike, but the whole body) along the way. Also, I find that the more technical the trail, the more variations in how the foot needs to adapt (mainly midfoot, but also some forefoot and heel strike).

  24. Drew Gunn

    A wise man told me that it doesn't matter if we run in shoes or barefoot. The important thing is to run with a smile on your face. Also, Karl is a good dude, and dogs cannot land on their heels.

  25. Jay S.

    I've run for 46 years without injury. I've had "hurts" mind you but no injury. I found out that if you run slow enough, you don't get hurt. What's the hurry?

  26. Andy

    The level of scholarship and strength of opinion in these posts is pretty impressive. We all know that (ultra)runners are smart and stubborn! Pete's post in particular illustrates how studies can only tell us so much, as there are so many confounding variables to consider. Ultimately, like many other areas of science, findings based on group studies tell us little about individual differences, which is probably where the secret to injury-reduced running really lies. Methods like Chi help each individual tune in to their own biomechanics in a way that works for him/her, but ultimately it will be the empirical approach for each runner to find what works (and what doesn't). And I agree with Mike, William, and Karl: Don't think so much, just run like a dog! Do dogs even have heels?

  27. Jim Blanchard

    All I know is that after 25 years of running Ultra's and struggling with hip, knee, back injurys the last six years, I began focusing on becomming a "midfoot or full foot" runner in the last year and a half. I do all long runs in "real shoes" and I'm able to run with a gentle touch for perhaps the first time since childhood. Not only am I running with relatively pain free joy but I just finished a favorite 50 miler an hour faster than my last finish in '08. I'm not going back to pounding. Oh, I didn't spend a dime on clinics or dvds. I did watch my 8 year old grandson run barefoot and the answer was right there.

  28. Matt P

    Rob,

    That was very interesting. Trying to land your feet close to CG I understand, but the part about keeping a "neutral lumbar spine" (in order to move CG closer to where your feet land) is a little harder to wrap my mind around. How do you manage this, exactly?

    Matt P.

  29. MikeV

    Tyro:

    Can you cite the studies you are talking about. As far as I know there are no studies that compare injury rates in barefoot/minimalist runners to those of tratitionally shod runners. All the studies I have seen about barefoot/minimalist running are biomechanical. We know that barefoot running reduces forces at certain places but the question is whether or not this actually translates into a lower injury rate.

    1. Tyro

      Hey Mike,

      I read this on http://www.sportsscientists.com/ (also linked in the article) and read their series on running shoes (links are on the left bar of their home page). They provide several citations for some studies on impact forces and state up front that studies haven't found a reduction in injury rates but you're right, now that I look closer I can't find any direct citations. The ones where actual journal links are given they're all about biomechanical causes like the ones in the first article. I was going on trust but now that I come to think about it, the SportsScientists site seems very blinded towards the status quo (eg: using Too Much Too Soon injuries as marks against forefoot striking. Even after quoting an article which demonstrated that impact forces were significantly lessened in barefoot runners they wildly speculated that wearing shoes would somehow balance things. Right, like cushioning would make forefoot strikes more forceful while lessening heel strikes in exact proportion. I'd like to hear the biomechanics of that!)

      This same site talks about studies which showed that the body stresses for heel striking are on the knees and hips, while the stresses for forefoot strikes are in the muscles and tendons which is why I was asking about what kinds of injuries the two groups get. When stressed, muscles heal and grow stronger but joints deteriorate. Even if the total forces remain constant these preliminary studies already make a good case for switching unless you've got a good supply of replacement knees.

  30. Bev

    I ran for many years landing heel first and had to give it up due to knee pain.

    Running landing midfoot to flat has allowed me to run again with no pain at all.

    Yeah it hurt the calfs a bit when I started but I knew that and adjusted my stride and style.

    I now have back the joy of running that I had as a kid, at 45 I run through the trails just like I did at 10 wearing the same minimal shoes I did then. Those flat Nike trainers, now they are Asics but same idea.

    End of the day know your body and don't give up until you find what works for you.

  31. Tom

    And the pendulum swings back closer to center. I , for one, am really pleased to see shoe companies experimenting again and too much polar thinking and skewed research writing takes away from the sport. I think this is why independent reviews are so essential to finding the right shoe for me.

    Great article and great responses!

    1. Ryan

      There are a number of reasons to work on form even if someone is not injured. One reason is to develop a deeper understanding of the body. Other reasons include improved efficiency, increase of speed, and a stronger mind-body connection.

      The question "why change if you aren't getting injured" reminds me of the old cliche "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." Sure, there might be no need for a "fix" but there is certainly room for improvement. There is always room for improvement. I would recommend any of George Leonard's books for a great read on approaching sports from the perspective of "mastery."

      To your other question "does forefoot running/Chi/Pose do anything that moving your centre of gravity under your hips won’t? "

      I'm not sure if I fully understand the wording of this question as I think you are meaning to say getting your foot under your COG?? Approaching running as a holistic practice can certainly have a profound effect on people's lives. Whether it is via Chi Running, pose, or barefoot, these methods have allowed many people to not only run pain free, but experience more joy, more life, more fun etc…

      The issue that is really at the crux of the matter here is this:

      The scientific community is overly focused on what can be measured in a lab.

      The things I'm talking about above cannot be measured in a lab, and unfortunately we then have people taking a hugely reductionist approach to running. This is how we've wound up in this foot strike debate.

      I am not sure how someone can research these methods and then reduce it down to a debate on foot strike other than the fact that it is one of the easiest things to see on a youtube video and to measure in a lab.

      Finally, many people are writing in saying they believe there is no "one right way to run" The irony here is that the Chi running and barefoot community have been at the forefront of providing runners with options and ideas other than the traditional heel-toe dogma that has been perpetuated for the last 30-40 years.

      1. MikeV

        Ryan:

        The appropriate role of the scientific community is to be focused on what can be measured. Evidence based medicine has its limits. It can't measure or quantify the mind body connection etc. It can give us valuable information if there is something that is clearly helpful or harmful.Don't be too hard on the medical geeks among us. We realize the limits of our discipline but still think it is worthwile.

        1. Ryan

          Hi Mike,

          I agree with everything you said up until the last sentence. I think *some* realize the limits of science. Unfortunately there are many, many folks in the scientific community who treat science as religion. They are just as dogmatic and preachy as some of the barefoot purists. I think the people who are performing the studies realize the massive limitations. In fact, if you read most studies the conclusions are generally similar "we need to perform more studies to understand this better" Unfortunately, anybody with a keyboard and mouse can write an article/blog post and blow the study out of proportion, take things out of context, and make wild claims. I understand this might be a select few giving the entire discipline of science a bad image, however, we need to be fair to both sides. Just because *some* barefoot/pose purists make exaggerated claims, does not mean everyone who teaches or practices these methods feels the same way.

  32. Jacob Rydman

    great article and discussion. i'm 26yrs old and have been competitively running for half my lifetime, from beginning as a 100 meter sprinter starting out as a 13yr old to now running ultras (and yes, i believe with the right training over many, many years, Usain Bolt could run ultras and do well! ha ha jk); yet it always baffles me why i have never been injured? it's inevitable it will probably happen one day (hopefully it is something minor, *knock on wood*). is it my 139lb frame which puts less stress on my joints/ligaments/tendons/bones? my years of constant work of tweaking my stride to be more bio-mechanically efficient? 8 years of competitive tackle football which taught my body to be strong? who knows? i agree with karl, just go run. there are definitely things you can do to make you less prone to injury, but i believe there is no one-road answer. there are many roads, pick which one works for you, whichever helps you to continue to do what you love.

  33. Jeff F.

    Doc, I'd like to see your take on running and weight loss. There are so many differing viewpoints on this and it seems, like with the footsrike issue, an expert for every opinion.

  34. Matt P

    I'd like to see research on the nature of fatigue in endurance sports. How do we evaluate claims about, say, the "central governor theory" of Tim Noakes and others? Any research on fatigue in ultra running vs shorter running events? What is fatigue anyway?

  35. Rand

    Very interesting stuff in here – but it all leads me back to what my gut has been telling me lately; if I spent as much time just running as I do reading about it I would be a lot better runner…. (gut pun intended lol)

  36. Speedgoat Karl

    Jay S. Well said, I've been working on the slower running theory and you are right, if we run slower it won't hurt so much, look at my Pony Express run, 2064 miles, I ran slow and it didn't hurt that much (relatively speaking of course). :-)

    Everyone else, you are getting waaaaaaaaay too technical about running form. It is an interesting topic and could be debated for weeks, but why bother? Just go run and enjoy it, that's what matters most.

  37. Todd

    I really think that each runner should find what best works for him/her as far as form/footplant goes, and then advocate for other runners to do the same. I happen to be a mid-forefoot runner, and that seems to work for me, but I don't get on a soapbox about it and tell everyone (and their dog) that they should switch their running form. There is no "best" way to run that can be applied to all runners. You've got to find what works for you as an individual, and don't worry about what others are doing.

  38. Mark

    There is a clear difference between the unknown runner mentioning his shoes and Karl Meltzer talking again about his shoes=sponsors. I bet you can see that. Cheers.

  39. Dominic

    I think one major flaw in the study was it measured runner's performance after 12 weeks. To me, 12 weeks is a decent amount of time, but a short time in terms of the development of my mid/forefoot stride. Sure, I had calf and ankle problems when I started minimalist running, but they went away as I actually perfected the mechanics on my own. I think the argument that midfoot vs. heel striking is trading knee for ankle/calf problems is a bit short sighted.

    Really, to be able to have two groups of runners that can scientifically prove anything one way or another is a very difficult task. However, the general trend in the footwear industry is more companies are responding to customer demand year after year.

    Minmalist running isn't for everyone; there's a entire body and mind approach to it: q-angles, arch heights, power-weight ratios, creative mental inclinations, various levels of upper body strength, eye-foot coordination, and cross training required.. But people seem to enjoy it, and at the end of the day, that's the only reason any of us are running 100 miles.

  40. djconnel

    I like what you write here, but leaning forward to "exploit gravity" is a perpetual-motion-machine argument. What generates kinetic energy is changes in potential energy: having the center-of-mass lose altitude. Leaning forward at a steady angle does not. Sure, if you lean forward, there is a forward component of force, but unless you are accelerating that is balanced by an opposite force, a direct consequence of Newton's laws of motion. I think what the forward lean does is to help maintain vertical alignment and to emphasize a foot strike position less ahead of the center of mass.

    I was impressed by the 10 km video where the runners' feet got well out ahead of them, but then came back before striking the round such that the foot strike wasn't as far ahead of center-of-mass as one might have guessed from a still photo in full stride. Lesson I take from that: don't worry about kicking the front foot out there as long as it's in good position once it lands.

  41. john

    I'd just like to say that I think more can be drawn from the graph from Hiroshi Hasegawa (2007) than concluded here. What seems striking to me is that a far greater proportion of the faster runners are mid foot strikers (around 50%) when compared to the slower runners (about 20 – 25%). So you mightn't be able to say that mid foot striking will make you quicker, you could say that if you are slow you are more likely to be a heel striker.

    Just a thought…

  42. BalancedAthlete

    Lots of great research here + personal insights regarding foot strike. I believe humans always seek to find the "best" to give themselves some sort of advantage over others. While there seems to be much debate on the where/how a foot lands I think it tends to be over processed. Instead of looking at foot strike, perhaps we should look at turnover or cadence. Slower cadence has more impact regardless of foot strike. With more impact, the type of shoes minimal to ultra cushy is personal. How much do YOU want to feel? Like Speedgoat Karl, I like plush. Doesn't keep me from running on less, just don't want that much impact going through my body, always.

    Get the one or many that you believe in! If it works, go run.

    MikeC said it best "I can count at least 5 different running styles depending on terrain/speed." Learn from our 4 legged friends, they are so excited to just have the opportunity to go run!

    There is no one way that is perfect for all, find your own style, own it and go run.

  43. Greg

    Thanks Will,

    I hope you keep up these types of posts. The comments you are getting are great, respectful and insightful. I'm very torn on this topic and love hearing what people have to say.

    Greg

Post Your Thoughts